By Peter Haapaniemi
They may not realize it, but many motorists on Interstate 75 just north of Detroit are getting a glimpse of the future: a black Chrysler 300, essentially driving itself, that regularly plies the highway. There are people in the car, to be sure. But they are engineers monitoring performance and providing human intervention only as a backup. The car is watching the road, steering, controlling speed and maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles.
That Chrysler prototype is an autonomous test vehicle from Continental Corporation, the Hanover, Germany-based auto supplier. These self-driving cars are experimental, but at the same time, they are tangible evidence that Continental’s automated driving technology is rapidly entering the mainstream. In fact, the company plans to have these systems on a number of the industry’s models in the near future.
In some ways, this may seem like a big leap for Continental, a 144-year-old company that makes everything from tires to brakes to chassis components. But for a decade or more, the company has been expanding the use of electronic driving technologies. Indeed, Continental has made automated driving a key element in its business strategy, and Fast Company magazine named Continental one of the Top 10 companies to watch in the field. In short, the combination of sensors, computers and vehicles is in the company’s DNA.
“Automated driving is really just an evolution of our active-safety technology,” says Ibro Muharemovic, the lead engineer with Continental’s North American advanced engineering group in Auburn Hills, MI. Rather than a radical new direction, he says, “It’s more of a final product of everything we do.”
The Road to Autonomous Driving
Continental’s focus on autonomous vehicles is driven by the company’s overarching Vision Zero concept, which is basically creating systems that eliminate driving accidents and fatalities. The $37.9 billion company is the world’s second-largest auto supplier, and its work with safety and driving-assistance systems covers a lot of ground.
Continental offers everything from electronic stability control to tire-pressure monitoring systems and, increasingly, high-tech offerings such as radar-based adaptive cruise control and camera-based lane departure control systems. Just as important, the company is taking a holistic approach to such technologies under its ContiGuard system, which integrates and coordinates active- and passive-safety systems in vehicles.
Several years ago, Continental realized that these various efforts, when taken together, provided a foundation for automated driving, and the advanced engineering group began looking at the possibilities in earnest. The group is “kind of the skunkworks of the organization, and we work on technologies that are more ‘out there,’” says Muharemovic. At the time, automated driving fit that description. So, as part of its exploration of the technology, Continental joined a Carnegie Mellon University team to enter the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2007.
Sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), this event saw 11 autonomous vehicles competing to navigate a course made up of urban and suburban roads in Victorville, CA. Drawing on Continental’s sensors and engineering expertise — as well as that of the university and partners GM, Google and Intel — the team won the challenge with a modified Chevy Tahoe. In 2011, Continental participated in a European Union-sponsored event called HaveIT, which looked at autonomous vehicles performing in congested traffic and areas where roadwork was being performed.
Those projects made it clear to the Continental engineers that autonomous driving was on its way, and that the company could be a significant part of its evolution. “We decided to really push our technology to the max and see how it would perform in everyday situations,” says Muharemovic. “What can we do? How far can we take it?”
To find out, Continental developed its own test vehicle, a modified Volkswagen Passat, and began driving it in Nevada, which was about to begin licensing autonomous driving test vehicles for its roads. “We drove roughly 6,500 miles in four weeks in fully automated mode,” Muharemovic says. To gain more experience and log more miles, the team then took an automated drive from Las Vegas to Brimley, MI, the site of Continental’s testing grounds.
These efforts paid off in late 2012, when Continental received the Nevada autonomous vehicle testing license, which bears the infinity symbol to represent the future. Continental was only the third company to receive it — after Google and Audi — and the first automotive supplier to do so.
The testing also provided something that was even more important in the long run: information. On the drive to northern Michigan, the Continental team collected a huge amount of data from the vehicle’s various cameras, radars and sensors. “We have the data recorded and stored on our server, so we can re-simulate that long drive now,” says Muharemovic. “Any time we make an update to our algorithms or functions, we just run it back through our simulation on that data, and we can see how things improve or what else we need to do.”
From Concept to Production
These tests provided Continental with deep insights into automated driving, which enabled the company to develop a roadmap for ongoing development (see sidebar). Because it involves a broad range of the company’s technologies, the automated driving effort includes not only engineers in Auburn Hills, but also their counterparts in Japan and Germany. These locations work with common tools and platforms, allowing them to collaborate smoothly, but each is then charged with customizing technologies and offerings for their respective regions.
Overall, the move to automated driving has turned an important corner at Continental, as concepts have quickly become realities. Rather than looking for huge breakthroughs, says Muharemovic, “We’re now improving what we currently have.” Three years ago, he says, the technology seemed futuristic. But now, automated driving is a well-defined target with a clear delivery date for the company. Says Muharemovic: “We have it, we’re driving it, we’re validating it; we’re trying to make it robust so that we can bring it to production as soon as possible.”
Mapping the plan
Continental Corporation’s development roadmap outlines three key phases of automated driving:
Partially automated. Often called “traffic jam assist,” this level of automation provides lateral and longitudinal control, but the driver must constantly monitor the system and be prepared to take over complete control at any moment.
Highly automated. Building on the first phase, the system provides more sophisticated control, so that the driver does not need to constantly monitor the system when it is active. The system detects when it is reaching the limits of its capabilities and, if necessary, will request that the driver take control within a certain time buffer. The system will not always be able to return the vehicle to the original low-risk state; the driver will need to do that.
Fully automated. The driver need not monitor the system, but the system will notify the driver to take over if needed. They system will be able to return the vehicle to the minimal risk condition by itself.
The first phase is essentially complete, and Continental’s systems are slated to be incorporated in a number of production models in 2016. The second phase is expected to be ready by 2020. And the third, expected in 2025, is where a lot of the company’s work is currently focused, with engineers looking at detailed architectures for high-speed communication, system redundancies to ensure reliability and, of course, making sure it is all affordable.